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Posts tagged ‘teaching’

Are you an under-taker or a risk-taker?

I heard a presentation several months ago about different types of organizations and how the culture of those organizations can impact their success. It seemed to me that these descriptions might be applied to teachers as well.

Jaded Mrs. Krapappel from "The Simpsons"

The Under-taking Teacher – Always Looking Back

The under-taking teacher is someone who is always looking backwards. All they ever seem to talk about are the “good old days.” They miss out on all of the good things happening today in education because they are always looking back to yesterday.

The kids were better. We didn’t have NCLB. Parents were supportive. I only had two preps.

The problem with being an under-taking teacher is that any decision teachers like this make are based on what has worked in the past:

it was good enough then, it’s good enough now.

And, yes, we can learn from the past but you can’t live there. You have to live and adapt to where you are. Kids are different, parents are different, technology integration is important and the world is different.

Too many teachers today are spending their time and resources lamenting the past when they should be adapting to the future. What has worked in the past may not work in the present because the audience has changed. The question most under-Taking teacher asks is “why can’t we do it the way we used to?”

The Care-taking Teacher – Always Looking Present

Satisfied econ teacher from "Ferris Bueller"

The care-taking teacher is always concerned with pressing issues. They are busy and often have decent lessons but that they can only focus on the here and now.  Decisions by these kinds of teachers are based on immediate needs. The number one question seems to be “what do I need to get done today?” Much of what they do revolves around the demands of NCLB and state tests.

For the most part, care-taking teachers are pretty comfortable. And they’re not necessarily bad teachers, but as long as they have enough supplies, support from the administration is just okay and no one bothers them, most care-taking teachers seem to settle in and count the days until their 85 points.

After all, they’re tenured. Why worry too much? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem is that they are seldom very excited about teaching and so their students aren’t that excited about learning.

The Risk-taking Teacher – Always Looking Future

Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame

The risk-taking teacher is always looking forward. They believe that the best is yet to come. They invest a lot of time and effort in learning new things today so that they are better prepared for doing better in the future.

Risk-taking teachers seek to be cutting edge. They want to learn more about how kids learn and to use all available resources to make kids more successful. They’re almost always involved with local, regional and national history organizations, they look for better reading and writing strategies and they wrestle with technology questions.

One of the reasons that we as teachers don’t take risks is our fear of failure. We’re afraid that our state tests scores won’t be good enough or that we’ll look silly in front of kids or that the technology won’t work or that we’ll get calls from parents or . . .

But we also know that failure is often a prerequisite to success. Teachers take risks because they understand that screwing up is not necessarily a bad thing. Risk-taking involves possible failure. If it didn’t, it would be called Sure Thing-taking.

The question a risk-taking teacher asks is “what do I need to know so that both myself and education in general are better in the future?”

I think we’re probably all three at different times of the year. I can still remember years ago complaining that the district was trying to install some sort of new-fangled network laser printers when my handy-dandy 9-pin matrix printer was working just fine. And in the middle of January, it can become very easy to just assign worksheets.

But I also think that we all know which teacher we’d want for our own kids.

So . . . what risks will you be taking next year?

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History humbles and affirms

It’s been a great week so far with our Century of Progress summer session. We’re deep into Tim Bailey and Dr. Stephen Aron today. Yesterday, Dr. Matthew Booker finished up his time with an incredibly interesting discussion of the impact of the bison on the American West.

But before he left, Dr. Booker shared his vision of history and history teachers. It’s a view that I’ve not heard articulated quite this way before and so I’m paraphrasing it here:

History is the most important thing we can study. It is the most important thing my students will study. History speaks directly to the central problems and solutions of human existence.  It teaches us that we are not the center of the universe. It humbles us.

It also affirms our existence.   Nothing in our lives tells us that we matter more than the fact that we are connected to this web of human relationships.

History places us in a community of human beings which is vast and ancient and will continue into the future. History makes us aware that we are never alone. You are never alone if you think about the past. We are merely the latest in a long line of human beings who will continue into the future. And no other habit of mind has that power to make us feel connected. We feel that sense of connection when we look backward.

History both humbles us and affirms us.

What a great way to look at both history and our responsibilities for teaching it.

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Great teachers make a difference. So do bad ones.

Manning, good. Leaf, bad.

Two great college quarterbacks. One makes it in the NFL, one doesn’t.

Yesterday’s post discussed a short essay by Malcolm Gladwell that highlights what some call the quarterback problem. A simple question with a difficult answer.

What college quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL?

Gladwell uses the problem faced by NFL general managers to extend the question into K-12 education.

What does a great teacher look like? And how do we find them?

Why worry about great teachers? Gladwell cites research documenting that great teachers transfer 1.5 years worth of content in a typical school year. Poor teachers? Barely 0.5 years worth.

About a year ago, NY Times journalist Elizabeth Green wrote Building a Better Teacher.

When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to.

Green asks the same question Gladwell does.

There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try.

Gladwell has a solution.

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers – that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible.

But Gladwell spent time with a variety of people, including Bob Pianta at the University of Virginia, and he began to realize that great teaching is incredibly complex. And now

this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar.


we shouldn’t be raising (teacher) standards. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree . . .

I’ve said before that we need higher standards for teachers. Ed programs should be more selective in who they let in – if they do, we’ll get better teachers on the other end. But Gladwell’s got me thinking about the quarterback problem. The best pre-service teachers may turn out to be the educational equivalent of Ryan Leaf.

The solution I’m starting to buy into?

Accept everybody. Anybody with a pulse. But judge them after they’ve started their jobs, not before.

That means the profession needs an “educational boot camp” –

. . . an apprenticeship that allows teacher candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Find the best one by having them teach – then hire the great ones, get rid of the bad ones and train the average ones to get better. And you find the great ones in part by using some of the work that Doug Lemov has done.

Founder of Uncommon Schools, Lemov is the author of Teach Like a Champion – a collection of deliberate and intentional instructional techniques that he observed over time in the classrooms of great teachers.

. . . he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise.

We need to observe the boot camp teachers and document who uses these techniques. Keep those. With those left, document who is willing to learn these techniques. Train those. If boot camp teachers don’t have these techniques and aren’t willing (or able) to use these techniques, they need to go.

As a profession, we need to stand behind the great teachers and be willing to push the poor ones out.

This may mean changing how we as teacher groups negotiate This may involve changing tenure. This may mean paying the great teachers more.

Both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly become a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

It may mean changing how we do a lot of things.

But great teachers make a difference. So do the bad ones.

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K-12 Education has a quarterback problem

It was not an easy decision.

Both players came to the 1998 draft with impressive college numbers, high expectations and tons of buzz among NFL scouts. Both were All-Americans and finalists for the Heisman Trophy. In fact, both were seen by many NFL experts to be equal in ability and potential. One NFL general manager said

you really can’t go wrong with either one of them.

A year later, after a full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, one had thrown for 3,739 yards with 26 touchdowns, set five different NFL rookie records, including most touchdown passes in a season, and was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team.

The other?

Skipped a series of mandatory meetings required of all drafted players, was benched after nine games, threw just two touchdown passes and fifteen interceptions, passed for 1,289 yards with a terrible quarterback rating of 39.

The first? Drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning continues to start, has been selected as an All-Pro ten times, was Super Bowl MVP in 2007 and named Player of the Decade in 2009.

The other?

Ryan Leaf appeared in just 25 games over four years at San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas. He completed 317 of 655 passes for 3,666 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions.

So . . . we get it. Manning good, Leaf bad. The point?

It’s incredibly hard figuring out which great college quarterbacks will develop into great NFL quarterbacks. Everything seemed to suggest that both Manning and Leaf would be successful. One was. One wasn’t.

It’s the quarterback problem. Who do you draft?

In his short essay Most Likely to Succeed, Malcolm Gladwell of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point fame uses the quarterback problem to illustrate a similar problem in K-12 education.

How do we know which college kids will become great teachers?


should we care?

The research seems pretty clear, Gladwell claims. With enough data, it becomes easy to identify both poor and great teachers. Eric Hanushek of Stanford University says that students of great teachers learn the equivalent of 1.5 years of content every year. Students of poor teachers learn 0.5 years of content in the same amount of time.

For the mathematically challenged, that’s a difference of a year. A year.

Teacher effects impact learning much more than school effects. A great teacher in a bad school is better for kids than a bad teacher in an excellent school. Robert Marzano’s research makes this clear:

Eric Hanushek says that simply replacing the bottom 10% of poor teachers with average ones could close any achievement gap that exists between the US and other countries.

And after years of worrying about standards, funding levels, class size and curriculum design, many are beginning to say that nothing matters more than putting great teachers in US classrooms.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

What do potential great teachers look like?

Tomorrow? Great teachers, how to find them and how to get them into the classroom.

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Focus on the kid, not the assessment

With state assessment time rolling around, I thought I would re-post something I wrote a year or so ago that fits here.


It’s a story many of you already know. But perhaps on a Monday late in the school year with state assessments staring us in the face, it bears repeating. I was reminded of the story while browsing through an old teaching strategy article from the Organization of American Historians.

Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams and son of John Quincy Adams, served as a Massachusetts state senator, a US Congressman and ambassador to Great Britain under Abraham Lincoln. He was also very conscientious about keeping a daily journal and encouraged his children to do the same.

Henry Brooks, fourth of seven children, followed his advice and began journaling at a young age. A particular entry written when Brooks was eight has continued to catch our attention. Following a day spent with his father, he wrote

Went fishing with my father today, the most glorious day of my life.

The day was so glorious, in fact, that Brooks continued to talk and write about that particular day for the next thirty years. It was then that Brooks thought to compare journal entries with his father.

For that day’s entry, Charles had written:

Went fishing with my son, a day wasted.

Now it’s possible that Charles was upset that they came home empty-handed, having caught no fish. But even so, he seems to have forgotten that the process is sometimes more important than the product. That the time spent with kids is usually more important than what we do with them.

It’s easy to forget the powerful impact we can have with our students just with the time we spend with them. So a gentle reminder during the assessment season . . . make it about the kids, not just their test scores.

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Zhao, education and globlization

I had the chance to listen to rising star of educational reform Dr. Yong Zhao last week and am still working to wrap my head around what he had to say.

So far, here’s what I got:

  • Innovation creates entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs create jobs
  • Jobs equal higher quality of life
  • NCLB and other forms of testing kill innovation
  • Current US education system is actually pretty good, especially when compared with other countries
  • Other countries such as China and South Korea are working hard to create an educational system modeled after the US
  • The US is working hard to create an educational system that looks like China’s

Mmm . . . where to start?

Many in the US use international tests like the TIMMS to show how far the United States is behind educationally. But Zhao cited statistics showing that countries that scored low on those sorts of international tests have the highest levels of creativity, quality of life, democracy, wealth, economic growth over time. The opposite is true of the countries who scored highest on those types of tests.

Zhao noted that in his State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned that the US has the strongest economy, the most productive workers, the most patents, etc. Zhao asks “If what Obama and others say about our educational system is true, how can our economy be so good?”

He suggested very strongly that we’re worried about fixing things that don’t matter.

Zhao highlighted what the federal DOE and others are attempting to do to “fix” the current system – things like Race to the Top and Common Core standards. Boiled down, these efforts are designed to:

  • centralize the system
  • standardize the system
  • make the people in the system more accountable

Simply stated, all of these attempts to “fix” our system are designed to improve our chances to compete with others like China and India. And Zhao says that’s stupid.

He pointed out that Asian countries started with this sort of system and discovered that it doesn’t work. Zhao cited all sorts of documents that demonstrate that China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore are working to de-centralize and de-standardize – with the goal of increasing creativity and innovation.

Chinese concerns have included:

  • Overemphasis on simple knowledge transmission
  • Too many required and uniform courses
  • Excessive coursework burden on students

In response, China has actually reduced the number of required hours for math and other core classes while increasing the number of hours for art, PE and other elective courses.

South Korea is moving along the same path:

All this energy has been spent on raising test scores, not nurturing creativity of any other aspect of human nature – it’s our biggest challenge.

Lee Ju Ho
Minister of Education, Science, and Technology
Chronicle of Higher Education
January 23, 2011

Among other things, Singapore is working to focus more on “the explicit teaching of critical and creative thinking skills” and a greater emphasis “on processes instead of on outcomes when appraising schools.” Japan has a three-pronged approach focusing on “enhancing emotional education,” creating a diverse, flexible educational system that “encourages individuality and cultivates creativity” and “decentralizing educational administration while enhancing local autonomy.”

Exactly the opposite of the kinds of things that the US is trying to do.

Why is this a big deal?

Because the research on creativity and innovation is pretty clear.

Zhao cited a recent book titled The Rise of the Creative Class that describes why some areas become economically powerful and other places do not. Zhao and the book’s author, Richard Florida, agree that for a place to become economically powerful (or truly compete with China), that place needs to focus on three things:

  • Appropriate use of technology
  • Diverse talents
  • Tolerance of ideas, attitudes and lifestyles

His non-example? Michigan since the 1980s.

Zhao did talk briefly about what he sees as the solution;

  • Teach global competencies including what he calls culture intelligence (knowledge of economics, problems, languages and cultures)
  • Cultivate digital competencies
  • Personalized learning
  • Professional autonomy, support and development for teachers

I agree with a lot of what he has to say. I’m especially intrigued by what he had to say about how a place becomes economically powerful. There’s some interesting tie-ins to Jared Diamond’s ideas. I also like his comparisons between the current US system and those in Asia.

While I’ve read some of his stuff before, this was really the first time I had the chance to hear Zhao articulate his ideas. And I’m still working what he said into my own world view. But I’m pretty sure I’ll find a place to put it.


Update 2/28

Ken Robinson gave a talk last fall that is related to this topic. Feel free to browse through it.

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